CITY HALL — A South Side alderman Wednesday called for hearings into racism at the Chicago Water Department after a small piece of rope was discovered hanging above the dashboard of a truck — an incident that some African-American workers saw as a racially threatening message.
Ald. David Moore (17th) said he planned to call for a full hearing into the culture at the Water Department, where Inspector General Joseph Ferguson in July said he discovered an "unrestricted culture of overtly racist and sexist behavior and attitudes."
Moore said there was no doubt in his mind that the rope was shaped into a noose and hung in the truck to threaten African-American employees with violence.
"We need to get to the bottom of this," Moore said. "We need to let everyone have their say."
A photo of the rope hanging in the truck surfaced in April, a Water Department spokeswoman said, and was investigated by Commissioner Randy Conner when he took over the department the first week of June.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Conner's predecessor, Barrett Murphy, after racist and sexist emails from department employees surfaced.
The rope was "found to be a misunderstanding," said Water Department spokeswoman Megan Vidis.
"The employee used the string for hanging pens while on the road. He personally apologized to his co-workers when he learned that some had taken offense," Vidis said.
Conner said Wednesday that the individual responsible for hanging the rope — with what Conner said looked to him like a slip knot — realized that it was "insensitive."
Since the allegation of racism was found to be unfounded, the employee was not disciplined, Conner said.
The employee who hung the rope should have been fired, Moore said.
However, Conner said the resolution of the complaint under his authority shows "the system worked."
In Ferguson's report this summer, he described a supervisor in the department using "a city email account to repeatedly send and receive racist and offensive emails."
In June, six African-American employees sued the city, claiming they were discriminated against and blocked from promotions.
The federal lawsuit alleges that managers conspired to "weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect" of employees' jobs, including unwanted shifts and work assignments as well as being blocked from advancing in the department.
Employees routinely used racial slurs — including the n-word and "you people," to refer to African-American employees, according to the lawsuit.
"Black female employees are called bitches and whores on a regular basis," according to the lawsuit.
Conner said he would not tolerate any racism or sexism in his department, and urged employees to come to him directly with complaints.
Nearly three-quarters of the department's 2,100 employees have gone through equal-opportunity training ordered by Emanuel as part of the effort to change the department's culture, Conner said.